Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Geraldine Brooks

Tonight, I drove up to Third Place Books in Bothell, WA to attend a reading/book signing by Geraldine Brooks.  She is on a book tour promoting her most recent novel, Caleb’s Crossing.  I read one of her previous novels, People of the Book, in early April and since it is so fresh in my memory, I went to go see her.  Ms. Brooks was so inspiring, intelligent, and interesting to listen to that the hour she spent talking to the audience flew by.  She started with some random anecdotes about flat screen TVs, Oprah, a brief autobiographical background about her childhood in Australia, Columbia University, and then how the idea for Caleb’s Crossing popped up.

She only read a brief passage from early in the book and then spent the next half hour answering questions.  Each answer she gave was easily spun into a kind of story which completely charmed and mesmerized all 100 or so of us in the audience.  I asked a question referencing the current issue of the New York Times Book Review which gave an outstanding review of her book this week concerning the authentic 17th century language she incorporated.  I wondered how she learned how colonials spoke back then.  She mentioned an extensive Oxford dictionary where each word you look up is annotated with what people used for it in earlier times.  For example, she was sure nobody incorporated the word ‘fetus’ in the 17th century so in the dictionary she found they said ‘shapeling’ instead.  Furthermore, Ms. Brooks said her research was limited because there are no journals by women from the 17th century.  Women did not write back then due to lack of education, access, social mores, etc…  She learned about their speech patterns and vocabulary from court records.  There are transcripts from female defendants explaining themselves to the judge usually against the charge of being a ‘scold’ which means being overheard in public criticizing a man.
Geraldine has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for the past decade or so which directly impacted her current subject matter.  Caleb refers to the first Native American to graduate Harvard University back in 1645.  The author’s usual M.O. for her historical fiction is to take an event or person and weave an entire fictional novel just for them.  In her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, March, she created an entire novel from the absent father from Little Women.  In People of the Book, it was fictional people who came into contact with the Sarajevo Haggadeh.  In Caleb’s Crossing, it is all about the narrator, Bethia, who witnesses Caleb’s transformation from Wappanoag Indian to Harvard student. 
I can’t wait to read this novel and feel incredibly lucky I just happened to stumble upon a brief blurb in the Seattle Times that she was going to be in Bothell tonight.  Bravo Geraldine Brooks.

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